Conversion and appropriation

I can’t decide if blogging, particularly spiritual blogging, is more populist or more narcissistic, more edifying or more distracting. There are many half-finished posts in my drafts folder because of my ambivalence.

I’m at a weird spot. My practice is completely different. My gods haven’t changed, but I haven’t been to shrine this Kemetic year. To be fair, I can’t physically get to my shrine due to the clutter and chaos of a full-time grad student trying to balance school and work with a chaotic family. So I have nothing new to say about Kemetic practices, but I assume they will be the same or similar when I get my life back under control. In the meantime, I’ve had other practices dominate my time, and so I’ve been comparing my initiations in those areas to my Kemetic Orthodox experience. I was just thinking again about real practice and cultural appropriation, and that’s something that’s always relevant to someone who’s practicing a faith that comes from a culture that is not the one I was born into.

I know of few native-born Kemetics, by which I mean those who practice the faith having been raised in the faith (or at least the culture) of Kemet, which we now call Egypt. We are most of us coming at this from a place that probably started out exactly or close to cultural appropriation.

What do I mean by that? I mean that most of us starting by latching onto one or maybe even a handful of ancient Kemetic things–usually gods, but maybe also words and some practices or texts–and while we tried to be faithful to the source (hopefully) we probably just cobbled together from what, in our previous religious experience, we felt we needed. That’s not a value judgment, that’s just what we did. We picked up god A and put it on altar B and if we were really diligent ritual C may have come from/been inspired by the Book of the Dead (which will have to be the subject of a whole ‘nother post).

We don’t just do it with our religions. Anyone who’s ever doing yoga and who isn’t from India or an Indian family has probably started off appropriating this spiritual practice. Any of the Eastern martial arts may qualify as well. These practices Aren’t From Around Here and we’re using them (yes, USING them) for limited and selfish purposes like beach bodies. Are these particular things all fine forms of exercise? Of course, otherwise their native cultures wouldn’t still be doing them for millenia.

But what happens–what should happen–when a person makes a deep commitment to and connection with a practice is that it changes that person. One day you are doing yoga and long-dead gurus start lecturing you on nonpermanence in your head mid-asana and Hindu gods start asking for fruit. That’s because you’re doing something right. You are starting to get it. And you’re still an outsider essentially, but you’re moving toward the source. It’s a beautiful and daunting place to be, because now you have to start letting go of the you that was you before. You have to become the new you. This is conversion, and what finally starts to erode cultural appropriation. You get a new culture forced upon you, which you might not have been asking for or didn’t realize by taking that kung fu class that you might be seen by the ancestors of that tradition as asking for it. But with great abs come great responsibility–the responsibility of being a part of the whole thing instead of just sneaking in for the good parts.

Once you get there, you know that there is no other way to be happy. You may be ashamed at how half-assedly you practiced before, and probably are right to feel that way. But you’ve grown, at least a bit. Your perspectives shifted and your worldview hopefully grown wider. You look back at the ones who are still just clinging to the good parts. The ones who don’t get lectured on the karmic repercussions of driving like a Chicagoan or fighting with a friend, the ones who don’t follow the dietary restrictions you’ve ended up bound to because that’s what your gods or tradition require. You see them clinging so hard to the them-that-was, the thems that now struggles to try to but their now-shamed selves into the then-shaped shoes that they have outgrown. It’s painful. And usually frustrating. If you haven’t developed some humility by this point, you probably will once you start snarking on noobs and someone more senior than you reminds you of the many embarrassing things you did/said when you were stuck in your then-shaped shoes.

Conversion should be the goal in undertaking spiritual practices. It’s not convenient and it changes you forever, even if you decide to “go back.” Skirting around conversion is an insult to what you are learning. It’s an insult to your teachers. Of course, if you find a big problem, if you have a fundamental incompatibility with the teacher or the practice, there is nothing wrong with dropping them. But think long and hard about what it is you want to get out of this practice. If the aims are purely superficial, then a more superficial practice would probably be the most comfortable way to accomplish the goal. The spiritual buffet that has dominated American pagan culture leaves folks still hungry because few have had a balanced meal of practice plus it’s cultural context. The context teaches as much as the bare practice. Ignore it and it’s like not having all your fingers and toes. Couldn’t you do more with all of them?

I’ve been changed by Kemetic Orthodoxy. I realized it the day I attended a Dua and could clearly see that some people were still in some ways dogmatically clinging to Christian values, having only painted over them in a nice shade of Netjer. It felt so foreign to try to understand the Christian undertones, I realized that I had fully converted and that I really had left so much of my old self behind. And I am still Kemetic in practice even without specifically Kemetic practices in my daily schedule, because I am always doing things in a Kemetic manner, informed by those practices I have had to momentarily set aside to attend to other things. It’s hardwired in and not dependent on anything overt, no ritual on switch. I’ve been changed by other practices and cultures since becoming Kemetic too. While some of those conversions were haphazard or accidental, the later ones have definitely not been. I chose to start down those roads knowing that I couldn’t know where I would end up, only that when I got there I would have not only the tools I went out looking for but the knowledge of their appropriate use and the spiritual bases for their functions. By letting each new tradition re-shape me and adopt me into itself, I have had some truly amazing results from each new technique.

Don’t go unless you can honestly go all-in.

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~ by Sekhtet on January 31, 2014.

One Response to “Conversion and appropriation”

  1. […] On conversion and appropriation, or what happens when the religion you once appropriated starts appropriating […]

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